Or should that be "Danned if you do. Danned if you don't"? I'm referring to some of the responses given by those who are either puzzled, amused, or annoyed that some Christians are (gasp!) responding to the historical and theological claims made in TDVC.
A typical line of inquiry begins, of course, with this question/assertion: "Why are you so worried about a work of fiction?" Once an explanation has been given as to why TDVC is not "just fiction," one of these questions inevitably follows:
• "But isn't it a good thing that people are talking about religious beliefs?" That depends. What exactly are they talking about? The notion that it is good to simply talk about how you feel about this or that is nonsensical. Using words isn't good enough; rather, how are the words being used? Are conversations that begin with a question such as, "Why are you a member of a Church that has such a rotten past and hates women?" going to result in much good? Of course, it depends in part on how you respond. But, really, how substantive are the specific conversations that result from people reading TDVC? What sort of questions are being asked If people simply immerse themselves further in the Coded Craziness (by reading, for example, Michael Baigent's The Jesus Papers, or some other piece of pseudo-historical trash), then "talking" is of little value. (Following a recent talk in Portland, I was asked by an audience member: "Why should I believe you instead of Michael Baigent when it comes to deciding whether or not the gnostic texts are historically reliable?" But it's not an issue of Olson vs. Baigent, but of reading the Christian Gospels and comparing them to the gnostic gospels, and recognizing that the latter have little to nothing to say about historical persons, events, and details. Read the sources!)
This question, by the way, was posed by Anderson Cooper of CNN this past week when he interviewed Sandra and me on his late night news program. I think we handled it well enough, but the notion that the TDVC is a good thing because it sparks conversation reminded me of the trick question: "Have you stopped beating your wife?" You are put immediately on the defensive by an absurd question. Yet many conversations about TDVC begin with absurd questions that immediately put Catholics on the defensive. Then, if you choose to defend yourself ("I've never beaten my wife. Why did you say that?"), you sometimes hear:
• "What are Christians so afraid of? Obviously you are hiding something or else you wouldn't be defensive." Several readers have told me of the frustrations that come with being unexpectedly accosted by a family member or co-worker who has suddenly received his doctorate in Church history by reading TDVC (after all, the Chicago Tribune did write that Brown's novel does "transmit several doctorates' worth of fascinating history and learned speculation"). They are put on the defensive and often react defensively, naturally. Unfortunately, again, there are some people who really do think that if a Christian tries to defend or explain their beliefs, they have admitted guilt. Period. Say no more! You wouldn't be trying to defend yourself if you weren't guilty! Of course, you can't win, because if you say nothing, your silence is also understood to be an admission of guilt. (For a subtle variation of this approach, see this recent piece in TimesOnline, which also uses the "it's just fiction but it's also true" approach.) If, however, you are able to respond to this "question," you will probably have this reply thrown in your path:
• "Well, you have to admit that the Catholic Church has brought all of this negative attention on itself by being so mean and secretive." This often comes from people who apparently have, for whatever reason, an axe to grind with the Catholic Church and who are of the opinion that simply being Catholic is an offense to reason and humanity. As a former anti-Catholic fundamentalist myself, I am very familiar with the old and tired arguments about how big, secretive, nasty, powerful, and deceptive the Catholic Church was/is.
What I eventually learned was that I was mistaking my gross ignorance of Catholicism and Church history as evidence of some giant conspiracy theory. In other words, the Church must have lots of secrets since I didn't know much about it. Then I made the stunning decision (duh!) to actually read Church history (as written by Catholics, non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians), early Church writings, gnostic writings, official Church documents, and works of Catholic theology. Yes, there have been many bad Catholics and many bad deeds done in the name of the Catholic Church, which is often different than those acts being supported by the Catholic Church. Fair enough. What I found is that the Catholic Church, more than any other religious institution, has been willing to acknowledge the sins committed by sons and daughters of the Church. Every group has sinners within their ranks; but those groups shouldn't be judged solely by the sinners, but also by those who live and fulfill the mission of the group (also known, within the Catholic contexts, as saints). After all, if the presence of evil deeds is a good reason to do away with the Catholic Church, it's a good enough reason to do away with all of humanity, regardless of race, color, or creed.
But, sadly, none of this matters to those who are convinced that the Catholic Church has done little but terrorize, oppress, plunder, deceive, manipulate, control, and even murder throughout two thousand years of history (or 1700 years, if you want to believe that Constantine created the Catholic Church, a belief apparently shared, oddly enough, by Dan Brown and Tim LaHaye). Yesterday I was interviewed on a radio program on a large Seattle-area station. One of the two hosts explained he really liked TDVC because it provided a history of Christianity that was different from "99.9%" of the information people are usually given. He insisted the Catholic Church deserved to be portrayed negatively in TDVC because "that's how the Church was." After all, the Church has controlled "the story"of Jesus since the beginning, so isn't it time that people heard a different version? The issue at hand, it seemed, was not one of truth, but of options: I want a story that I like and that works for me. One problem, I replied, is that Brown's version isn't supported by any evidence and his assertions are often contradictory or go against his supposed sources (e.g., the appeal to gnostic "gospels" for a Jesus who is human only). Which then led to the host launching another question:
• "But isn't it true that we really can't know what happened in the first century? After all, we really don't have any reliable evidence about Jesus, do we?" This is the height of irony (or even cynicism) considering it is usually uttered after a litany of "facts" have been given about the early Church: it destroyed secret gospels, hated Mary Magdalene, oppressed women, was all about political power, etc., etc. So the only established facts about the first few centuries of Christianity are all negative? How convenient. How unconvincing. But this, I think, may be one of the most damaging consequences of the Coded Craziness: the conviction that there is nothing convincing about the historical evidence, especially not if might be in favor of the Catholic Church. In the words of a certain Jennifer "reviewing" our book over at the Barnes & Noble site (and "who is still looking for answers"):
Even thought the book was a work of FICTION, some things ring true & have been proven so. The fact that paganism was around before Christianity came along is true. The fact that the Catholic church did smear the face of it to promote more to Christianity is true. Pagan temples were remade to be Christian churches. As for the rest, NO ONE knows the truth. Who knows if Jesus was married or not, no one can know first hand since it was so long ago. All we have to go on are books written by us (man/woman) alike, and we only write it as WE see it to be. This is the reason they are called BELIEFS. Since religion & information has been passed down through the centuries, the truth has been watered down. Everyone has their own beliefs, & we shouldnt put people down just because their's conflicts with ours.
There you go: No one knows the truth. And that's the truth. But, we do know that Christianity is horrible. End of story. And for many readers, TDVC will be the end of the story. And that is a shame, a problem, and a challenge.